This story cowritten by Tobias of MasterClassics (Tuesdays, from 6AM to 8AM) and Byrd
Edwin Grasse: A Story I Knew, About A Person I’d Never Heard Of:
“Ever heard of Edwin Grasse?” Bob asked one Tuesday when he entered the WPRB studio at the end of my show.
“No,” I replied. I didn’t think I had.
“He’s a good composer,” Bob said, “And a pianist. And an organist. But he was blind from birth.”
I was suddenly alert.
“When was he born?” I asked.
“Late nineteenth century.”
“Did he live in New York?”
“I think I know a story about him!”
My father used to tell us this story:
Back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, members of the upper middle class could afford records, but many musicians were leary of them. They didn’t think a person could learn to understand chamber music by listening to a single interpretation of a piece over and over again.
So when my father’s extended family went to stay in the Catskills every summer, my grandmother would pay professional musicians from New York City to make the six hour trip (by boat & horse and buggy!) to perform for them live.
According to my dad, the musicians were usually pretty disgusted–at first–to discover that their audience was a bunch of kids.
But when the pros began to play and saw that the kids were hang on to their every note, they warmed to their task and played their hearts out.
One week, the piece my grandmother had selected was the Brahms Horn Trio. The pianist, the horn player and the violinist arrived separately, and when they got up to the house, they realized that no one had brought the music! It seemed like everything was over.
But the pianist wanted the audience to have a sense of the wonderful piece they were missing, so he sat down at the piano all the same.
“He was blind from birth,” my father used to tell us, “But he knew the piece by heart. He played the piano part and even some of the horn and violins parts–humming what he couldn’t play on the piano.”
It was an inspiring event for my father, and for his siblings and cousins, but I don’t think he ever told us the name of the actual pianist.
Who could it have been, other than Edwin Grasse?
In an article for the Baltimore Sun from the 24th of April, 1922, Grasse talked a little about his composing style:
“I do not draw on mental pictures,” he told the interviewer, “nor do I try to interpret any particular scene in my compositions. Mine is spontaneous outpouring of my feelings and temperament at the time of writing.”
How did he learn to play music? He answered this question, too:
“I learning scores of other composers, I sit beside the piano and there is a reversal of the previous method. The pianist plays the selection as I listen, asking frequent questions as to the values of certain notes and phrases, and making a mental photograph of it all.”
Free scores by Edwin Grasse (1884-1954) are available online here, and some of his chamber works can be found here.
If you have an interesting, music-related story, classical or otherwise, feel free to email email@example.com. We love to hear from you!